Why All the Pushback on Regenerative Agriculture?

As I’ve delved deeper into soil science and wholistic, regenerative agriculture, I’ve been surprised by the amount of resistance to the practice, and skepticism of the results put up by those in the environmental community, and the land grant university systems doing much of the formal ag research.

This week, I’ve come across two examples of academics criticizing globally admired regenerative agriculture-based farms (Brown’s Ranch, and White Oak Pastures) and neither had any evidence to back up their claims other than that they could find no peer-reviewed science to show what these operations were claiming could be done…yet they are doing it, and doing it well (both farms have built soil carbon, increased wildlife diversity, reduced inputs–in short, they have implemented regenerative systems that work with nature, rather than against it and are rewarded by lower input costs and higher quality products).

Andrew McGuire’s post from back in 2018 is one example. He’s an educator at one of my alma maters. From his bio (https://pnw-winderosion.wsu.edu/personnel/andrew-m-mcguire/) you’d think he’d be a proponent of regenerative agriculture and interested in reproducing Gabe’s results, instead his article titled:
“Regenerative Agriculture: Solid Principles Extraordinary Claims.” (https://csanr.wsu.edu/regen-ag-solid-principles-extraordinary-claims/) appears to criticize the observed outcomes at Brown’s Ranch simply because he doesn’t see how they could be true. He attempts to justify his criticism with back of the envelope calculations based on antiquated, reductionist, and ultimately inaccurate assumptions, but doesn’t do a convincing job.

Thankfully there are now three years worth of insightful comments to help Andrew realize some of his blind spots. I hope he takes them to heart and focuses on supporting good outcomes, rather than tearing them down.

Here’s my response:

Gabe,

I’m so glad you took the time to comment on this article. There’s so much close minded, reductionist thinking in the world. Regenerative Agriculture has the power to turn around the slow motion train wreck of climate crisis we’re on right now. I’ve got a fancy master’s degree in Biochemistry myself (from WSU no less), and it took me years to break free of the arrogant, reductionist mindset that keeps us from seeing that there are forces at play in nature that we don’t yet fully comprehend–and that’s ok.

Just because the mechanism producing a factual, observed outcome isn’t understood, doesn’t mean it can’t work–which seems to be the crux of your argument Andrew. Either you believe Gabe’s results or you don’t. Your job as a scientist is prove your hypothesis with real data, not simply criticize based on assumptions and speculation–that’s just not helpful to anyone. If we all sat around waiting for peer reviewed science to catch up to the already realized benefits of reduced inputs, carbon sequestration, water filtering/conservation, reduced/eliminated ‘-cides’, increased biodiversity/wildlife that regenerative agriculture provides, it would simply be too late.

Ray, your observations above (that natural systems are dynamic, complex, and change from moment to moment, region to region) are spot on. We can’t investigate dynamic, living, ecosystems by looking at single component observed out of context and expect to gain understanding of the whole. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll be delighted when peer reviewed science catches up to modern regenerative agricultural practices, but there’s actually no need for a complete understanding of the mechanisms at play, as long as they are working and the outcomes can be accurately measured and reproduced.

Much of the universe from the human perspectives operates in a ‘black box’; we see the result, but we don’t know how it happened (here’s your link to quantum theory Andrew). Why can’t we accept that for Agriculture as well? Institutional science, funded by ‘big ag’ and the chemical companies that create dependence on their products which destroy the natural soil ecosystems that support agriculture production, fund a lot of this peer reviewed science. Want to get funded?… Ask the questions in your research that Big Ag wants you to answer.

I just can’t say it any better than you have Gabe so I’ll close by quoting you from above:

“Regenerative agriculture, unlike the current production model which you two expound, requires the power of observation and critical thinking. Andrew, you think things are meaningless unless they are peer reviewed. That is total nonsense! Most of the “research” coming out of our institutions today is meaningless to producers. It has led us into the industrial ag. mindset that is responsible for the demise of our natural resources and has played a major role in the decline of human health.”

Our planet is on fire. This is an emergency. We’ve got to work together using systems that produce results without degrading our environment, not attack one another because we don’t understand how those systems work.

Compost

There are literally thousands of ‘how to’ compost videos on youtube, and every other farm blog seems to have it’s own take on what you can or can’t, should or shouldn’t do… I find a lot of the ‘rules’ a bit of a storm in a teacup, so here’s our take.

Adding biochar to the pile before it’s final turn.

If you want to get high tech with it, knock your self out, check out the links below. If you can’t be bothered other than to dump kitchen scraps in a corner of your yard, that’s ok too (though you’ll be much happier if you put a few handfuls of leaves on top each time you take out your kitchen scraps). Either way you’re keeping organic matter out of the land fill and creating a biologically rich amendment for your garden or farm. As Nicole Masters says, ‘the elixir of life comes out of a worm’s butt’ so if you see worms in your pile, you’re doing something right.

The Johnson-Su Bioreactor

The best research we’ve found about developing fugal dominant compost so far has come out of Dr. David Johnson and his wife Hui-Chun Su who developed the ‘Johnson-Su Bioreactor’:
https://www.csuchico.edu/regenerativeagriculture/bioreactor/index.shtml

This passively aerated static pile involves very little work once setup and produces a great compost, almost regardless of what you put into the pile as long as you build it right, keep it moist, and add some worms after the thermophilic stage. Since discovering this method, we’re converting our larger, turned piles at the farm into static aerated piles to reduce fossil fuel use and tractor time, while producing a more fungal dominant compost, using a setup similar to what can be seen in this video:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JGxSDhnvUUc

Charles Dowding also has a great setup for his operation in England:
https://charlesdowding.co.uk/advice-on-making-compost/

The bottom line is, everyone that produces an organic ‘waste’ stream ought to turn it into a resource by putting it in a compost pile. More and more, the important role of fungi in biological systems is being recognized so building your compost piles to encourage their development will serve you well. Different crops thrive with different fungal/bacterial ratios, here’s one deep dive, see what else you can find specific to your context on scholar.google.com:

“The molecular characteristics of compost affect plant growth,
arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi, and soil microbial
community composition”

https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/s00374-015-1046-8.pdf

For a visual of how we build our compost piles, both at the farm, and at home (two radically different methods) check out these videos:

Small Farm Scale Hot Compost:

Agroecology. Full Stop!

For hundreds of thousands of years, humans sustainable lived off the land. With the transition to fossil fuel, and later the repurposing of toxic chemicals developed during the ‘great wars’ for use on the farm, humanity departed from its natural, give-and-take relationship with nature. We, the developed ‘Western’ nations of the world, now use food aid as an economic weapon against the undeveloped world to insure a source of cheap food and labor. (See “Stuffed and Starved,” –Patel).

Mycelium colonizing biochar at the PCE.Farm

The most efficient farms are small, run by a handful of people, scattered across the landscape but relatively close to urban centers utilizing primarily human power to plant/harvest/cultivate their crops. Well managed, they use far fewer resources to produce healthier food in greater quantities per square foot than the chemical and fossil fuel dependent “Conventional” mega farms that lie far from population centers.

A return to agroecology, agriculture with an ecological basis, on small farms near the towns and cities that demand the produce, can promote food sovereignty, reduce harmful climate impacting emissions, and even sequester vast amounts of carbon back into the soil (How is carbon stored in the soil Video from soilfoodweb.com). Why wouldn’t we move in this direction?

Raj Patel make this argument well in his latest article in Scientific American titled “Agroecology Is the Solution to World Hunger.” And I might add, an essential tool in our humanities collective work to mitigate the climate crisis–one that anyone with a yard can practice.

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/agroecology-is-the-solution-to-world-hunger/

Multiple Pesticides, Synergistic Impact

A new meta-analysis shows that combinations of pesticides have a significantly higher mortality on bees than when used individually, resulting in an underestimated impact to bees by pesticide makers and regulators.

A swarm from the PCEFarm apiary in May 2021

Take home quote:
“In 2019 scientists concluded that nearly half of all insect species worldwide are in decline and a third could disappear altogether by century’s end. One in six species of bees have gone regionally extinct somewhere in the world. The main drivers of pollinator extinction are thought to be habitat loss and pesticide use.”

Summary article:
https://www.sciencealert.com/huge-metastudy-says-pesticide-threat-to-bees-likely-underestimated

Link to original article in Nature:
https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-021-03787-7

Pesticide impact study on soil biology–no surprises…

Thanks to the Center for Biological Diversity (@CenterForBioDiv) this nice bit of reporting ran across my desktofrom the Guardian’s Environmental Editor, Damien Carrington (@dpcarrington article linked below). He presents a great summary of a recent scientific review of pesticide/fungicide/herbicide impacts on soil invertebrates. Sadly there were no surprises, with the vast majority of impact categories studied showing harm.

A healthy soil biome is the pre-requisite to growing healthy food, sequestering carbon, minimizing erosion, increasing rainfall infiltration, nutrient retention and cycling–in short without healthy soil, you can forget about farming long term.

The most surprising thing I learned from this article was that, in the US, the only insect tested for negative impacts by ‘*any*-cides’ was the honey bee. Which means there’s no standards for testing or protection of your soil life.

Is this what you see when you turn over a stump near your garden? It should be.

Checkout the article here, and spread a little compost around today!

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/may/04/vital-soil-organisms-being-harmed-by-pesticides-study-shows